How to Find and See Tracks

Noticed everything in that first glance did you? … Or did you?

Eventually, most likely sooner, a tracker comes across part of a trail where the animal seems to have levitated … and yes, they might have jumped, but the tracks you can see don’t mention that … so the missing tracks have to be there, right?  Yet no matter how long you look, even to the point where the mind begins generating false tracks, you find none.

There’s normal every day seeing and then there’s seeing. Have you ever been surprised when suddenly realizing that thing you thought you were looking at was something else entirely?  There’s a Sherlock Holmes / Mary Russell story where Mary glances over the side of their cruise ship and notices an object floating along beside the ship … Only to suddenly realize it was keeping pace … Which snapped her mind into focus and she realized it was a shark fin.   Or … look at a track … now begin all over again and look to find as many details as you can … Now get real close and do that again.

How many ways are there to see a track?

How many layers of relevant detail do you usually catch?

Sometimes giving up lets you see details you missed at first … “Giving up” as in resting the mind for a few moments and then taking a fresh perspective works pretty darn well but doesn’t solve all the problems with seeing.

This page is about ways to solve those other problems …

Now that the art of seeing has been mentioned … this book is interesting; “Tracking & The Art of Seeing”. Copyright 1999 by Paul Rezendes. ISBN: 0-06-273524-1


Concept Illustrated: Finding the Next Track … Or predicting where it will be found…

The idea: The focus of this illustration is reading the current track for clues about where to look for the next track.

Reading the current track to tell where the foot was headed will point you towards the next track … A skill guaranteed to be useful.  One way to begin learning this skill is to find or create a track that is a change in direction of forward motion and study it.  Watching the formation of some of the larger track structures that indicate that change will give one a starting place.

In this clip a human right foot gives some idea of how the foot and sand interact when the foot serves as a push point to move the body gently to the left, and what signs of this push are left in the track.

This clip does not show all the indicators of a turn … One big and obvious indicator was intentionally left out (that’s a clue)!

Ways to find the next track …

(This is not a complete list)

The Tracking Stick: Ancient technology … Multiple uses … It works.  How can you use it to find the next track … While standing?  (More about this on the Trails” page)

Reading the current track: Can tell you how much energy was used, where the energy was going, how they used the foot, and which direction they moved.

Feel Tracking:  It is possible to sense what may be the energy left by the being that made the track (no joke).

The author heard about this in an introductory class taught by Tom Brown, Jr..  After dwelling in skepticism for a few years the author finally tried it and discovered Tom was right … It does work!

Since that awakening the author has used this method several times.  The way it worked the last time he used it was … he felt a warm spot in the palm of his hand while it was held an inch or two above an easily visible track.  He was then able to find the next several tracks in the series by slowly moving his hand above the soil and paying attention to his body for the same sensation.  These next tracks were only faint flattenings, slight scuffs, a tiny pebble nudged out of its bed, a damaged spot on a leaf, or faint depressions.  Verification came when a nice fresh track left by the same animal was found.

It’s important to note that where the trail was first noticed it was meandering through a shaded area of hard-packed damp sandy/stony topsoil on a dirt road that had been rained on the evening before.  Worth noting because that made it pretty clear no other animals had left tracks in this area on the road.

Feel tracking is especially useful in spots where substrate movements as a track is being made are minimal or where you don’t have a flashlight and the natural lighting isn’t bringing out details.  This shaded hard-packed area was on soil where rain acts to make it settled, rigid and packed, and the fine dust gets washed back down in among the stones and sand grains.

The author has heard of this skill being pushed much further …

How to do the basic skill:

Start with the track before the animal levitated, or one after it landed.  Hold your hand about an inch or two above that track (palm down works for the author) and avoid touching the ground.   This works best if you don’t look for tracks as you move your hand, and instead just look away and pay attention to your body.  Next slowly move your hand back and forth or sideways above the track, far enough that your hand clears the track and is above undisturbed ground.

When your hand is above the track, or partially that way, you may notice a sensation; warmth on the palm, or back of the hand, or a tingle in the shoulder muscle, or something else unique to you.  For the author the sensation appears when his hand is above or very near a track.  Every mind/body combination is different … so experiment.  Persist… learning to tune into this sensation may take some time.

As you move your hand slowly in the direction of the animal’s travel, or back down the trail, pay attention to the same location on your body where you first noticed the sensation.  Sometimes a series of short arcs across the area works best.  When you get that sensation again examine the area under your palm closely, looking for the track, it may be faint.

To follow a trail of hard to see tracks you may need to repeat this process, marking the location of each track (without disturbing the trail), until you find one that is obvious.

Another experiment: What are the limits for this sense?  An inch…A yard…A mile … Only kneeling … Standing?  What happens if, after you’ve sensed one of these tracks, you aim your palm up the trail?  What else happens?  Images in your mind, an intuition about who the animal is, any scents?

Please allow a small digression to share a memory sparked by writing that last paragraph.  One summer day, walking along a favorite dirt road, and working on inner stillness, the author suddenly found himself thinking about wolves.  No sparking object or thought, just one moment stillness … the next it was almost like the author was up on the ridge observing himself walking down the road.

Who knows what that really was?  As far as observed tracks go, there haven’t been wolves up here this century, or the last, well, there was that one year when these huge canine tracks crossed the area … But that wolf was killed down on the highway … And all the books say there are no wolves here…

So if your mind ever suddenly switches gears like that you might pause to ask yourself what is going on…

(Human foot mesh modified from

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Concept Illustrated: Dust Compressions (Dull on Shiny by Canine Toe Pad)

The idea: Simulate lowering the body and head to look for tracks on a ‘clean’ floor.

Tracks are created every time there is an interaction between a foot and a surface, and a bit beyond that even.

This illustration is meant to demonstrate a track being left on a ‘clean’ surface covered by a thin layer of dust made of particles so small that you only see them when your eye is at the correct angle to catch the light reflecting off the surface.

There is another version of this where the foot leaves moisture and/or body oil … Think fingerprint.


Concept Illustrated: Adjusting Lighting to Increase Visibility of Tracks

The Idea:   This illustration demonstrates a valuable technique for using an additional light source while shading the object, to reveal more, and which, details you see in a track.

At night, in heavy shade, and even during the day when clouds or angle of the sun reduce the amount of shadow, tracks and details may be much less visible, or worse.

Shadows … are what makes tracks visible and brings out the details.

Light … even in full sun you can bring out more detail by using some object to cast shade around and onto the track and then reflecting sunlight into the shaded area to manipulate the shadows for better visibility.

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Concept Illustrated: Track on ‘Bare’ Rock (Red Fox Front Foot)

The idea: Some tracks can be found even on “bare” rock and this clip is only a hint at the obvious version.


Concept Illustrated: Using Stone Rolls to Find Tracks

Nudging ... Square-ish

The idea:  Noticing stones disturbed in their soil beds, or knocked clear out of them, is another way to find tracks when they aren’t obvious … Here this is illustrated using a small-ish stone rolled by a deer foot …

Well, ok, that photo to the left might be a slight exaggeration … Just a little.  Yet it does demonstrate the main idea.

Soil conditions, and the way those affect soil response to a foot, are constantly changing.  When tracks are created in some soil conditions it’s easy to find them, in other conditions not so much.

For example:  In this area rain can wash away faint tracks and make deep tracks fade and slump.  When the rain ends this soil drains quickly, but can stay damp and packed for quite a while, even a day or more.  This soil can become so packed and settled that the hoof of an adult deer walking after the rain sometimes leaves only the faintest of tracks.

When soil conditions hold only faint tracks …  Dullings, scuffs, slight depressions, etc. … It can take much longer to read or follow even a section of a trail.

Sometimes it is useful to minimize the time it takes to find the tracks you need to see.  How?  There are several strategies.  Noticing stone rolls is especially easy when animals have crossed open ground after a soaking rain has refreshed the surface  (where there is no layer of leaves or pine needles).

What happens to the soil when it rains?  Ever watch?  That’s a good place to start.  In this area the rain carries fine soil into and seals the gaps where embedded stones and soil surface meet, and rounds the edges of holes already in the soil … And the surface will weather from this state unless something has disturbed it.

The least sign left when someone does disturb this surface can be kinda faint.  As little as a tiny open crack at what was the rain-sealed boundary of soil and stone, a faint dulling or a slight depression.

 More obvious sign can include stones knocked completely out of their beds, leaving a patchy trail of disturbed stones that can be easily seen with a little practice.

Like most other track features there are large stone rolls and tiny … Old stone rolls and fresh … Stones just slightly rocked in their beds, or pushed deeper … And stones so large they don’t seem to notice they were stepped on, fortunately there is dust everywhere.


Concept Illustrated: Lifts and Drops as Track Features and Indicators of Direction of Foot Movement

Sand lifted away from frozen ground by the shoe.

The idea:  “Lifts” … things stick to the foot surface as the track is made and are moved along with the foot until they fall, or are knocked off.  The holes or imprints left can be all or part of the track, the material stuck on the foot can also distort the next track.

And … “Drops” … things fall away from or are knocked off the moving foot … These can sometimes indicate direction of travel for the foot.

The idea here is to illustrate the process of a lift and the subsequent drops, also the ways they may give clues about direction of foot travel.

Soil conditions are constantly varying. Lifts can happen in almost any soil when conditions favor.  In the photo at left it is 7:40 a.m. on April 28 at about 9,000 feet.  The sun rose at about 6 a.m. but only reached this spot recently enough to thaw a thin layer of the hard-packed damp sand still frozen from a long cold winter, while also melting a shallow layer of snow from the previous evening.  It’s an interesting example for reading the age of a track.

When the author was a kid he learned to avoid certain places, clay-rich ground for example, where walking became progressively more difficult as the mud built up on his shoes (and slippery? Ever try greasy clay mud skating?) … Once back on dryer ground an obvious trail of mud grew as bits fell off with every step.

The next track … There always is one, but seeing it is sometimes a serious challenge.   Reading the clues in the last track found … those about where that foot went … is a valuable tool for finding the hard to see track.

Do you think there might be more than one kind of useful information in the trail of soil particles and surface debris lifted away and dropped from the foot as it leaves contact with the earth … Some falling away as the foot travels back to the ground … some carried into the next track or even further?

Lifts can range from a single sand grain up to an area as large as everything else stuck on the bottom and sides of the foot, and can carry useful information from the track where they originated clear into the next several tracks.  Or even back home … Might Sherlock Holmes have deduced where the shoes had been from the kind of mud freshly caked on parts of a shoe?

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Concept Illustrated: The Tracking Stick

The Idea: Begin illustrations of how to use a tracking stick, here: one way to use a tracking stick for finding a hard to see track.  (Of course it needs refinement, that’s half its interest value!)

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The links below will take you to the rest of the illustrations.

Page: The Concepts of Tracking…
Testing Sand
The Translucent Foot
Whole Track: Red Fox – One Forward Step

Page: Foot Movements …
Canine Claw Tip Leaves Track in Fine Sand

Page: How To Read Tracks …
Simple Tire Track and Direction of Travel
True Track (Canine Toe Pad)

Page: Species …
Deer Foot – One Walking Step
Red Fox Front and Rear Feet – Side Trot

Page: Track Features …
Pressure Against the Track Wall (Canine Toe Pad)
Simple ? Wave
The Layer of Sand in Contact With The Foot
The Ridge Between Canine Front Toes

Page: Trails …
The Human Trail